From Broken Heart to Blessing

Matthew 14:13-21

There is no shortage of horrible in the world.  There is disease and hunger, destruction and violence, accidents and natural disasters, greed, corruption, injustice, and just plain stupidity. Perhaps worst of all, there are people who feel a need to affirm their power by victimizing others.  There is no shortage of horrible.  There is no shortage of need.  Sometimes even when you try to get away from it all it seems to follow you.

Jesus had been moving from town to town, teaching in synagogues, teaching by the seashore, telling stories—parables–to help people understand what the kin-dom of heaven is like, to help them learn how to see it, and everywhere he went he ran smack into people’s needs and expectations.  He poured out his power healing people.  He was constantly challenged by the inflexible piety of the Pharisees.  He stretched his patience explaining things to obtuse disciples.  When he went to Nazareth, the town he grew up in, he was so walled in by the odd double-whammy of doubt and familiarity that he was unable to accomplish anything.  

And that’s when he learned that his cousin, his partner in ministry, John the Baptizer had been executed by Herod.  

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

Jesus needed to retreat from the horrible.  He needed a break to mend his broken heart.  So he told his disciples where to meet him then got in a boat and set off for some alone time.

Somehow the crowds found out where he was going and when he stepped ashore they were waiting there to meet him.  So much for alone time.

The text says that when he saw the crowd he had compassion on them and cured their sick. There’s both urgency and intimacy in the language here.  The word compassion, especially in the Greek, sounds as if his heart is spilling over with a mixture of anguish and love for all these people, as if he is reaching out his healing hands to touch them even before his boat has ground itself against the pebbles on the shore.  

And then suddenly it’s evening.  The disciples, expressing a practicality that feels more than a little anxious, see a problem.  We’re in the middle of nowhere.  It’s getting late.  Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy something to eat.  

Their suggestion sounds reasonable enough at first glance, but it raises a lot of questions.  Where, exactly, are these villages?  How far away?  Do these hypothetical villages have enough spare food that they could afford to sell some to a battalion of unexpected visitors who show up suddenly at the dark edge of dusk?  

For the disciples, the crowd is a problem.  It’s been a long day, people are getting hungry.  Hungry crowds are potentially dangerous.  Solution?  Send the crowd away.  The nameless, faceless, we-don’t-really-see-them crowd.  Send them away.  

And then Jesus says something that just stuns them:  There’s no need to send them away.  You give them something to eat.

But… but… but…  how are we supposed to do that?  All we have here are five loaves and two fish!  That’s our dinner!  

Jesus tells his disciples to bring him the five loaves and two fish.  He orders the crowds to sit down, which is as good as telling them to pipe down and pay attention, then he looks up to heaven and blesses the bread and the fish.

We’re not told exactly what Jesus prayed, but I like to think that maybe he prayed the traditional Hebrew blessings for bread and meat or fish.  These blessings are different from the mealtime prayers we usually pray.  Most of the time when we say a blessing over a meal, we are asking God to endow the meal with some special grace or benefit, or to bless us by way of the meal.  The Hebrew blessings, though, assume that the meal is already blessed by God, that it already a gift from God for our benefit, and so these mealtime blessings offer to God the blessing of praise.

This is the blessing for the bread: Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.  

For the fish: Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, at whose word all things came to be.

You know what happened next.  Jesus broke the bread and ordered the disciples to start handing out food.  Five loaves and two fish.  It couldn’t possibly be enough.  Yet somehow five thousand men plus women and children who had tagged along were fed, and twelve baskets of food were left over.  

I want to say right here and now that I believe it is entirely possible that when Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed something transformative happened to those loaves and fish that enabled them to somehow stretch to feed five thousand plus.  With God all things are possible.  Miracles can and do happen.

I also believe, however, that every bit as important as whatever may or may not have happened to the bread and fish, something transformative happened in the hearts of all those people sitting on the grass.   When they heard the voice of Jesus intone the blessing they all knew, they were reminded that all bread is a gift brought forth from the earth by God so that it may be broken and shared.  I suspect that when they heard “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, at whose word all things came to be” they were reminded that they were a people bound together with God and with each other in a relationship inherited from their forebears and passed on to their children in an ancient covenant of love and mutual protection.  They were transformed by the voice of Jesus praying the blessing they all knew.  They were reminded that they were bound by kinship in the kindom of heaven.  So now, that loaf that had been tucked up a sleeve and saved for the walk home, that loaf, too, was brought out and broken and shared.  The dried fish that had been wrapped in a cloth, stuffed in a pocket and saved for later, that, too was added to the feast.  Jesus had prayed the family prayer, so now this was a family meal and everything was brought out to be shared.

Transformation of the bread and fish or transformation of the people. One way or another, or maybe both, there were 12 baskets of leftovers.  Which, by the way, indicates that someone had brought baskets.

You give them something to eat.  When Jesus said that to the disciples all they could think of were all the reasons why it simply wasn’t possible.

We seem to have a built-in tendency to want to kick the can down the road when we are confronted with a situation that feels overwhelming.  We do it with healthcare.  We do it with food insufficiency.  We do it with homelessness.  We do it with systemic racism and injustice.  

There’s a universal hunger in the human soul to make the world a better place, a place where no child goes to bed hungry, a place where everyone has a roof over their head, a place where we truly have equality and equity and liberty and justice for all.  Too many of us, though, have been waiting for someone else to come fix everything.  We’ve been kicking the can down the road.

Well, we’ve run out of road.

Jesus says, “You feed them. You house them. You educate them. You build a more perfect union.”

And if you think the resources you have on hand aren’t enough to do the job, then look up to heaven, praise God for the goodness you do have in your hands and acknowledge where it came from, then start handing things out.  You might be amazed to find someone else has brought along baskets.

John Lewis, the great Civil Rights leader, Christian pastor, and  U.S. Congressman, didn’t have anything to give to the struggle for Civil Rights except for his body, his mind and his heart.  But he trusted that was enough.    

Lewis gave everything and suffered great abuse as he walked a path of nonviolence calling this country to live up to its own ideals, to continue becoming a more perfect union.  In his last hours, he took time to write a loving farewell to us all to encourage us to keep getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble” for the sake of what’s right.  

Toward the close of that letter, Lewis wrote,  “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way… So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

Sometimes it seems as if there is no shortage of horrible in the world.  But there is also no shortage of the goodness that sustains us if we will bless it and share it.  In Jesus’ name.

Church Without Walls

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.—1 Corinthians 12:17

We are going to church.  Maybe we won’t be back in our building for a while, but we are going to church.  We might not sing in our sanctuary for some time yet, but we are going to church. Think of to church as a verb in its infinitive and infinite form.  To sing, to dance, to praise, to pray, to help, to uplift, to listen, to learn.  To church.  To gather as the body of Christ in whatever way we can even if it has to be in the catacombs of ZOOM.   To do whatever good we can even if it has to be organized through emails and texting.  To support each other in love and extend that love to others even if it is through phone calls and Instagram and Facebook and Messenger.  We are going to church.  We will church.  We are churching. 

So what if, for reasons of responsibility and maintaining everyone’s good health, we can’t gather in our sacred space just yet?  Our churching does not depend on our architecture.  Maybe—dare I say it?—our architecture has sometimes hampered our churching.  Maybe the sacred appearance of our doors, the religious statement of our whole building, has kept some people from crossing the threshold and stopped them from entering into the joy of churching with us.  Maybe since the outside affirms their preconceived notions, they figure that what happens inside will, too.  Maybe even we who are so comfortable on the inside have let our churching be molded by our packaging.  Thoughts?

In the Latinx communities of South Los Angeles and elsewhere in the Southwest they fandango.  Fandango is a centuries-old type of dance and style of music that originated in Andalusia.  In the Americas it has picked up some distinctive New World traits, blending old with new.  Fandango has also become the name for a kind of pop-up party, a neighborhood celebration centered around the dance and the music.  Someone will find a space then pass out flyers and at the appointed time people will come to dance and hear the band and sing the songs.

Martha Gonzalez, an Associate Professor at Scripps College, is also the lead singer of Quetzal, a band that organizes and performs at many fandangoes.  In a recent article in the L.A. Times she said,  “I think we always need spaces to gather, but it’s also the cultural work that needs to be done, creating culture so that even if the space disappears we can migrate to another space and we pick up where we left off because we worked on the culture mechanisms.  I think that’s the most important thing we can learn from having these spaces and then losing them.  The work and the culture we created continues to thrive.”

Take out fandango and put in church.  We need the spaces to gather but it’s really the cultural work that holds us together, the culture of being the body of Christ, the culture of being the hands and feet and heart of Jesus in this world.  We may love the building we have called church but we need to remember that it is only a facility.  It facilitates churching.  Even if the space disappears we can migrate to another space and pick up where we left off.  ZOOM, for instance.  The work, the worship, the bonding, the blessing, the loving, the welcoming, the praying, the generosity, the caring—the being the body of Christ—all continue to thrive.  Maybe we can’t gather in our building right now.  But come what may, we are going to church.

Dandelions

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

When I was a teenager there was a lady at church who used to pay me to come dig dandelions out of her yard.  You can’t just pull  them or cut them; you have to dig them out because they’re perennials, and if the tap root is left intact they’ll simply grow back.  I don’t bother digging them out of our yard.  I know it’s a losing battle.  Besides, if you keep the yard mowed, the grass and the dandelions tend to strike a balance.

Did you know that dandelions are not native to the Americas?  They probably came here on the Mayflower.  European colonists brought them here.  On purpose.  They’re actually very useful plants.  Every part of the dandelion is edible.  The leaves can be used in salads or sautéed or boiled, like spinach.  The flower petals can be fermented along with other juices, usually citrus, to make dandelion wine.  The roots, when dried and ground into powder, can be used as a caffeine-free substitute for coffee and were an essential ingredient in the original recipe for root beer.  Raw dandelion greens are a moderate source of calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese and contain high amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, beta carotene and other anti-oxidants. 

Dandelions have been used in natural medicine for thousands of years.  The root is a diuretic.  The leaves are good for treating constipation.  Dandelions have been used in natural medicine to treat liver and stomach problems, diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure.  

And if all that isn’t enough to make you appreciate the lowly dandelion, when the pretty little yellow flower turns magically overnight to a silver puffball, you can pluck the stem and make a wish as you blow on it to scatter the seeds to the wind.

So what do you see when you see a dandelion?  A charming, tenacious, self-propagating, useful little plant that could actually be part of your dinner every night?  Or a weed?  

The kingdom of heaven is like a dandelion.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field,” said Jesus.  “It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 

The people Jesus was talking to saw the mustard plant pretty much the way we see the dandelion.  Pliny the Elder wrote about its many medicinal and culinary uses, but he was quick to note, “Mustard grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”  In other words, it has its uses, but it’s basically a weed.  And yet, in Jesus’ story, someone actually plants it in his field.  On purpose.  Someone sees its inherent value.  They know that mustard oil can help ease pain from stiff or bruised muscles.  They know a mustard poultice can help ease asthma or relieve coughing and stuffy sinuses.  They know mustard can function as a diuretic and help cleanse the liver.  They know it can be used as a spice to flavor food and help preserve it.  

As Jesus tells the story, the man plants one seed in his field.  And if we’re a listener in Jesus’ audience we assume that soon the whole field will be transformed.  It will be a mustard field.   Jesus makes a point of also noting that other creatures also benefit from that mustard plant.  The birds of the air have a place to land and build their nests.  

The kingdom of heaven is like that.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s not talking about the afterlife.  He’s talking about a life of mercy, grace and justice.  Now.  He’s talking about a life of generosity and abundance.  Now.  He’s talking about how that life of mercy, grace, justice, generosity and abundance reaches beyond us to benefit all of creation.  Now.  

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s talking about the things we fail to notice, common everyday life things, little things that are right there in front of us if we will only take a moment to really look at them and appreciate them, if have enough sense to grasp their importance.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Sounds simple enough, but there’s something we lose in the translation, so here are three things here to better understand this little parable.  

First, the yeast isn’t yeast.  It’s leaven.  They didn’t know about yeast, per se, in Jesus’ time. Think sourdough starter.  Making sourdough has been a fun trend during the pandemic.  One of my friends makes regular posts on Facebook about the state of her starter.  She even named it.  I remember years ago when a friend sent us some starter that she was particularly proud of so that we could make some sourdough bread of our own.  It was a thing to share it and pass it along.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

Second, the woman in the parable doesn’t “mix” the leaven into the flour.  The Greek word there is enkrypto.  It says literally that she hides it in the flour.  The kingdom is something transformative that’s hidden in the midst of all the other ingredients—that little something that’s in, with, and under the other things that changes all of them.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

Third, three measures of flour. We’re not talking about 3 cups here.  According to Amy-Jill Levine, in first century terms we’re looking at somewhere between 40 and 60 pounds of flour.[1]  This woman in Jesus’ parable is making enough bread to feed her whole village and she’s going to need all the women in the village to help her knead the dough.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.

Again, when Jesus talks about the reign of heaven, he is not talking about pearly gates and streets of gold in the life after life.  He is talking about living an alternative life with alternative values and higher allegiances here and now.  One of the times Jesus says this most plainly is in Luke 17:20-21.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

The kingdom, the reign of heaven, is among us.  It’s in the midst of us. Present tense.  Now. That’s why Jesus uses such everyday pictures to describe it.  It is a domain in which we live and move and have our being if we know how to see it.   

The reign of heaven is learning to see each other as undiscovered treasures that we stumble across in a field that doesn’t belong to us, learning to see Christ in, with, and under each person we encounter.  

The reign of heaven is discovering a pearl, a life, so valuable and beautiful that we’re willing to go all in to have it, to live it in a world that God so loves that God went all in to save it.

The reign of heaven is a splash of cold water on your face in the morning reminding you that in the clear waters of your baptism you were promised that nothing can separate you from the love of God in whom you live and move and have your being, reminding you that Christ is present in, with, and under the water, reminding you that life itself is always and everywhere being renewed and transformed by little things seen and unseen.

The kingdom of heaven is every act of justice, of kindness and mercy, of grace and generosity, floating into the world like a dandelion seed blown by a child’s wish.  It plants itself in a crack in the sidewalk and brings color and new life out of the brokenness.  

The kingdom of heaven is like that.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,  Amy-Jill Levine, p.121; HarperCollins, 2014

About Those Weeds…

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;  25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.  27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’  28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’  29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.  30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” 

36  Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”  37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;  38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,  39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.  40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,  42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

In 1965, William Youngdahl, the pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska became convinced that racism was a pernicious evil, a spiritual cancer destroying the soul of America.  As he thought about how he might address this in his parish, it dawned on him that most of the people in his all-white congregation simply didn’t know any black people—that many had never had an actual conversation with a black person.  Youngdahl thought that a logical first step in confronting racism and white supremacy would be for white people and black people to simply meet and talk to each other.  To introduce the idea to his community, he invited youth from the nearly all-black Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church to join in worship with his all-white congregation.  That went reasonably well so he prepared to move to the next step in his plan which was to ask couples from his congregation to have dinner at the homes of couples from the Presbyterian congregation.  That’s when polite smiles faded and attitudes surfaced.  He quickly discovered that while the Presbyterians were willing, the members of his own congregation were resistant, passively at first, then more actively so.  At first they simply said they didn’t think people would be comfortable dining at the homes of their black hosts.  Then they said they didn’t think “our people” were quite ready for such a big step.  The more Youngdahl encouraged them to try the idea, the more his Council and other members of the congregation found reasons to object.  They began to accuse him of being divisive and revolutionary.  In the end, they forced him out of his position as pastor.  They saw him as a weed in their field.[1]

It seems that there always people eager to pull the weeds… or at least what they think are the weeds.  

“In Matthew’s day and in every generation,” wrote Robert Smith, “it takes little talent to finger members of the community who look like bad seed.  Where do they come from?  It is easy to lose confidence in the way God runs the universe.”[2]  

The weed Jesus refers to in this parable is almost certainly darnel, lolium temulentum, a poisonous grain that looks so much like wheat that it’s also called “false wheat.”  It’s easy to mistake it for wheat and vice versa if you’re not trained to spot the differences, especially when the plants are just beginning to grow.

Jesus says to let the weeds grow.  The reapers will take care of them when the time comes.  But almost from the beginning the church seems to have not been listening to that particular instruction.

The word “heresy” has cropped up rather frequently in the history of the church.  It comes from the Latin haresis which means “a school of thought or philosophical sect.”  The Latin comes from the Greek heiresis which means “to take or choose for oneself.” In Greek debate it was used to describe “a differing opinion.”  In church use, the conventional meaning of heresy is “a belief or opinion that is contrary to orthodox doctrine.”  Historically in the church, however, heresy”seems to have meant, “Look!  Here’s a weed!  Quick, let’s pull it!”

In 431, at the Council of Ephesus, the teachings of the British Monk and theologian, Pelagius, were condemned as heresy.  Fortunately for Pelagius, he had died in 418 or he might have been in for a rough time, not that he hadn’t been roughed up a bit while alive.  After all, you don’t go toe-to-toe with powerful bishops like Augustine and Jerome without getting a few bruises to your reputation…or your body.  Theologians fought dirty in those days.  And what was the great sin of Pelagianism?  Pelagius had dared to question St. Augustine’s idea of Original Sin, the idea that all of humanity was perpetually wounded by Adam’s sin.  Augustine said that from birth we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. No, said Pelagius, we are born innocent.  True, we are born into a world where sin is nearly inescapable, but we have the gift of free will which is one of the gifts of grace!  We can choose to move toward the love of Christ and Christ’s grace brings us the rest of the way in.  No, said Augustine, our human will is entirely degraded.  The human will is not free.  Pelagius is a heretic.

On the 6th of July in 1415, Jan Hus, a Czech academic theologian,  philosopher and priest was burned at the stake as a heretic for condemning indulgences and crusades.  He had also advocated, like Wycliffe before him, that the scriptures should be translated into the languages of the common people so that everyone could read them for themselves. 

On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy and cross dressing.  The church’s case for heresy was weak and Joan answered the inquisition’s questions with pious intelligence. But they had her dead to rights on the charge of dressing like a man.  It didn’t help her cause that she was an inspiring military leader and no slouch as a military strategist.

In 1521, Martin Luther was condemned as a heretic and sentenced to death for his widely circulated writings suggesting church reform.  Some of the reforms he advocated had been proposed by Jan Hus a hundred years earlier.  Luther had developed a large popular following and his denunciation of indulgences hit the church right in the wallet.  Fortunately, because he was under the protection of the powerful Duke Frederick the Wise, the death sentence was never implemented.

In 1633, Galileo Galilei was declared a heretic and forced to recant his assertion that the earth moves around the sun and not the other way around.  He died under house arrest 9 years later.  He was vindicated 359 years later in 1992 when Pope John Paul II admitted that Galileo was right, the earth does move around the sun.  A mere 8 years after that the Church issued a formal apology.  Galileo was unable to attend.

In his book Parables of the Kingdom, Robert Farrrar Capon reminds us that the enemy doesn’t have any real power over goodness. The wheat is already sown.  The reign of God is already in the world and there’s nothing the enemy can do about it.  But, “he can sucker the forces of goodness into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work for him. That is why he goes away after sowing the weeds. He has no need to hang around. Unable to take positive action anyway–having no real power to muck up the operation–he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him.”

All these heretics, all these persons with differing views, were seen in their time as weeds in the field.  Some were pulled and burned, ignoring the advice of Jesus: Let both of them grow together until the harvest.  He tells those who are eager to yank up the weeds that they’re likely to pull up the wheat, too.  Jesus also leaves a cautionary question hanging in the air, a question that echoes through this parable and our history: What makes you so sure you know the difference between darnel and wheat? 

Today, Pelagius is being reevaluated. A fair number of theologians are thinking that maybe he wasn’t entirely wrong and maybe Augustine wasn’t entirely right.  Jan Hus is regarded as a martyr whose ideas planted seeds that flourished in the Reformation.  Joan of Arc has been canonized as a saint and nobody much cares that she wore pants.  Martin Luther is acknowledge as a titanic figure who not only ignited the Reformation but set the stage for the Enlightenment.  Galileo opened our minds to the notion that religious dogma should not stand in opposition to empirical observations.  

Persons and ideas that were thought to be weeds in the field turned out to be wheat.

Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.

Do not judge and you will not be judged.  Don’t be in such a hurry to yank those ideas or persons you think are weeds out of God’s field.  Grow and let grow.  In Jesus’ name.


[1] For a thought-provoking look at this story see the documentary A Time For Burning by William Jersey.  Available on YouTube

[2] Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew; Robert H. Smith, 1998, p.178

Sowing Generosity

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Listen!  A sower went out to sow.

Karsten Lundring is an alum of California Lutheran University who really loves his alma mater.  Karsten attends every CLU football game and when the Kingsmen score he throws out handfuls of Jolly Rancher candies to the crowd in the stands.  Some of those candies fall through the bleachers and land on the ground.  Some are caught by people who are dieting or diabetic so they get passed along to someone else.  Sometimes people catch the orange ones but they just don’t like the orange ones, only the red ones so they give them away.  Some are caught by fans of the opposing team.  But a lot of the candies are caught by hungry children and CLU fans who are enjoying excitement of the touchdown and are delighted to celebrate with a taste of something sweet.[1]

A sower went out to sow.  

Jesus doesn’t usually explain his parables, but because his disciples pestered him about it he explained this one.  Well, partly.  He explained about the ground where the seeds landed.  The different places where the seeds end up serve as analogies for the different people who will hear the message that Jesus and his disciples are proclaiming, the announcement that the reign of God is about to begin.  Some will get it, some won’t.  Pick your reason.  Some are too shallow or too self-involved.  Some are too busy.  Some are too worried.  Some are misguided by their own misconceptions—these are all things that can keep the domain of God from really taking root in your life or, to put it another way, that can keep you from taking root in the domain of God.  

We have an natural habit when we read the parables of asking “What does this mean?” Please explain this.  We want to read them all as allegories—sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not.  We want to translate the analogies, to solve the riddle and walk away from the parable knowing The Point.  But Jesus tells parables not so that we can ask questions of them and arrive at some moral maxim like an Aesop’s fable, but so that the parable can ask questions of us.  Jesus tells parables to help us see the world, ourselves and God differently.  

When I’ve preached or taught on this Parable of the Sower in the past, I’ve always focused on the soil since that’s the part that Jesus explains.  My sermons were usually some version of “What Kind of Soil Are You?” with sometimes a side order of “What Are You Going To Do To Become More Productive Soil?” 

If you ever heard me preach one of those sermons, I apologize.  I messed the point.  I also missed the point.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s always a good thing to be looking at what we can do to let the love and life of God take deeper root in our lives.  It’s always good to pay attention to how our faith or lack of it is manifested in the lives we lead.  But that’s not the point of this parable.  There are other parables for that.  The fig tree in the vineyard comes to mind.

Parables ask us questions, and as I sat with this parable and listened to it again, the question it was asking me was “What do you see here that you haven’t seen before?”  Jesus is giving his disciples some answers, but not all the answers.  There’s more to see here.  And then I saw two things that made it a whole new story for me.

The first was this:  the soil can’t change itself.  It is what it is.  The pathway is going to be the pathway as long as people are walking on it.  The rocks are going to be the rocks.  Thorn bushes don’t uproot themselves.  

Jesus is telling his disciples and “anyone with ears” who will listen to not make themselves crazy trying to talk people into signing up for the reign of heaven if they’re just not ready to do that.  Just sow the seed.  Go out and announce it: the Domain of God is within reach.  Live it.  Be it.  Those who are ready will get it, and it will surprise you how many of them there are.  As for the rest, let the Holy Spirit work on them.  Rocks can be moved or worn down.  Pathways can be rerouted or tilled and fertilized.  Thorn bushes can be removed in any number of ways.  But right now that’s not your job.  Leave the Holy Spirit and the circumstances of life to soften them up.  You sow the seed.

The second thing I saw that absolutely turned this into a new story for me is this: this is a story of unbridled abundance and generosity.  There is no shortage of seed.  The sower throws it everywhere with no regard whatsoever about where it’s landing.  The word of the kingdom, as Jesus calls it in his explanation to the disciples, is an endless resource and when it lands with someone who hears and understands it, it reproduces itself even more abundantly. 

God has created this world to be a world of abundance and generosity.  As Gandhi said, this world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.  The earth itself participates in the generosity of God. The generosity of God was spoken in the word of creation.  The word of the kingdom is a word of perpetual regeneration.  Genesis.  Generation.  Regeneration.  The creative love of God is grounded in Generosity.  

“God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars,”  wrote Martin Luther, and surely God’s message of generosity and abundance is written in every harvest and planting.  

I remember being on our family wheat farm in Kansas once in the spring when the new wheat was standing bright green and knee-high in the fields.  I looked out and saw a family of deer grazing on the new shoots down by the creek.  I asked my mother’s cousin, Frank, if we shouldn’t maybe do something to shoo them away.  He just smiled and said, “Oh there’s plenty for them and us.  We’ll share it.”  

There was good soil there in Kansas where my family grew wheat.  The harvest was plentiful.  There’s good soil for the word of the kingdom, the domain of God, in many, many hearts out in the world.  Many people are already living in the heart of the kingdom whether they know it or not, living lives of generosity that produce more generosity in others.

When Michelle Brenner was furloughed from her job at a menswear store in Gig Harbor, Washington, because of the Corona virus, she was, naturally, upset, so she went home and made herself a big pan of lasagna using her grandmother’s recipe.  Nothing works like comfort food to soothe the soul.  Michelle realized that if her grandmother’s lasagna was making her feel better, it might lift other people’s spirits, too, so she posted on Facebook, “Hello favorite friends… if any of you want some fresh, homemade, no calorie-counting lasagna, let me know and I will gladly prepare it.”

A few requests trickled in—a retired neighbor, an out of work friend… Then Michelle took it on herself to deliver a few pans of lasagna to hospital workers and first responders, a few struggling single parents and others she knew of who were just scraping by. Word began to spread.  Soon she had so many requests that making homemade lasagna for others had become her full-time job.  When the president of the Gig Harbor Sportsman’s Club got wind of Michelle’s mission, he offered to let her use their commercial kitchen which had been closed because of Covid-19.  Three months later she’s still at it.  So far she has given away more than 1200 pans of homemade lasagna, although she’s lost track of the exact number.

Michelle initially used her $1200 stimulus check to pay for lasagna ingredients but that money was soon gone.  Fortunately, without being asked, people began to contribute what they could.  Some would give a dollar.  One person gave $100.  Somebody set up a Facebook fundraiser for her that raised $10,000.  All in all, people have given about $22,000 to the woman who is now known affectionately as The Lasagna Lady.  Every penny goes into lasagna while Michelle, herself, gets by on unemployment insurance. 

“It’s a pan of love,” says Michelle. “A lot of the people I make lasagna for have lost their jobs, and this is my way of saying, ‘I understand and I’m here for you.’ ”

When Jesus explained the Parable of the Sower to his disciples he said, “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”  Or 1200 pans of lasagna. 

I don’t know where Michelle Brenner heard the good news of the kingdom of heaven, the good news of God’s abundance and generosity.  I don’t know if she ever attended any church or is part of any faith.  Maybe she learned it from the earth itself.  Maybe it was layered between the noodles and the meat and the sauce and the cheese in her grandmother’s lasagna recipe.  I don’t know where or how she learned it, but she learned it.  And she’s passing along.

And a sower goes out to sow.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Thanks to Pastor Kirsten Moore, Calvaray Lutheran Church, Rio Linda, California for this story.

The Yoke’s On You

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

So how’s it going for you?  Are you getting a good handle on life in 2020?  How are your stress levels?  I mean, I know Jesus told us not to worry (Matthew 6, Luke 12), but sweet Lord, have you looked at 2020?  So far we have had a pandemic that looks like it’s going to be around for quite a while, we’ve had an economic collapse, and recovery doesn’t seem to be looking all that imminent, the stock market is bouncing up and down like a yo-yo,  ongoing civil unrest and demonstrations for racial justice have rocked our cities and spread across the globe, we’ve seen increasing political polarization as the election draws closer, we’ve stumbled through botched primary elections— All things considered, there’s more than a little to be stressed about.  Even nature seems to be in on the conspiracy of turmoil.  We’ve had record high temperatures in Siberia, Sahara dust storms landing on the American South, we’ve got Murder Hornets showing up in the Pacific Northwest, and now they’re warning that alligators in Florida may be more aggressive because of crystal meth that’s been flushed down the toilets.  Oh, also there’s a newly discovered species of shark in the Australian archipelago that can walk on its fins and briefly leave the water.  Fun times. 

So, in light of all that, how’s it going for you?  

You know, most people I talk to simply say they’re doing fine.  Just fine.

Do you know what fine stands for?  F.I.N.E.  Frazzled, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.  FINE.  Thank you to Pastor Kevin Mohr for that useful definition.  

Frazzled, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.  Yep.  I think we’re all just FINE.  And we’ve been FINE since even before the pandemic.  It’s no wonder that the world has developed so many coping mechanisms for reducing stress.  

Aside from guided meditation and mindful breathing and prayer (remember prayer?), here are a few of my favorites.

  • According to The Atlantic magazine, cleanfluencers have become very popular for helping people destress.  You say you don’t know what a cleanfluencer is?  That’s a person, usually a woman, who cleans her house or apartment on social media.  Apparently, thousands of people find it a great stress reliever to watch this.  Many swear that watching one of these 10 to 25-minute videos is just the ticket to help them fall asleep when nothing else will.
  • This next one is a little gross, but I swear it’s true.  Some people, especially younger ones in their teens and twenties, find pimple popping videos relaxing.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  These are videos of dermatologists such as Dr. Sandra Lee, known to her millions of viewers on YouTube as Dr. Pimple-Popper, using the proper tools to correctly extract the goo from blackheads and whiteheads.  According to Time.com there are several theories about why people find watching this so satisfying and relaxing.  Personally, I think it’s the catharsis of seeing something unhealthy and unsightly so quickly opened, and the bad stuff removed.  Problem solved. There’s a theological metaphor there just begging to be exploited but I’ll save it for another day.
  • I think my favorite recent example, though, of people being inventive in dealing with stress comes from Japan.  When Itaru Sasaki’s cousin died he was overcome with grief.  Itaru and his cousin had grown up in the same town and been best friends all their lives.  But with his cousin gone, he missed the times when they would hike to the top of the hill that overlooked the town of Otsuchi and just sit together and talk about anything and everything.  

   Then Itaru had an idea.  At the top of that hill where they had had so many long conversations, he built a white phone booth out of wood and glass.  Inside the booth he installed a chair and an old rotary-dial phone that wasn’t connected to anything.  Whenever he felt the need, he would hike up to the phone booth and dial his cousin’s number on what he called kaze no denwa, the Wind Phone, because his words to his cousin would be carried on the wind.  

   About a year after he had built the Wind Phone, the town of Otsuchi and that whole region were hit by a triple calamity, an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by a nuclear meltdown.  More than 10% of the population of Otsuchi was lost.  A few of Itaru’s friends who knew about the Wind Phone began to ask if they could use it, too, and it wasn’t long until a steady stream of visitors began to make their way up the hill to dial the numbers of their lost loved ones so they could speak to them on the wind, to say the things left unsaid, to make confessions, to just chat about things, or to simply say one more time, ‘I love you.’  Before long, people were not only coming from all over Japan, but from distant parts of the world to deal with the stress of their grief by speaking to the departed on the Wind Phone.

Stress isn’t new.  It was just as common in ancient Judea as it is in our modern world.  Everyone was carrying some kind of burden.  Everyone was under some kind of yoke.

According to Rob Bell, when a rabbi in ancient Judea recruited a bright young student to be his disciple, he would drape his stole over the student’ shoulders and say, “Take my yoke upon you and follow me.” If the student was willing to be that rabbi’s disciple and learn his way of interpreting scripture, he would reply, “I take your yoke upon me.”  From that moment he would be a disciple and, for all intents and purposes, a slave to the rabbi in hopes that he, too, might someday become a rabbi.  The disciple would prepare the rabbi’s meals, run his errands, prepare his writing materials, serve as his bodyguard, and carry his belongings when he traveled.  It was no easy thing.  It was a kind of voluntary slavery.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

Honestly, I think sometimes we misunderstand what Jesus is telling us here.  I have frequently heard people refer to this saying of Jesus as if he is offering to solve all their problems.  But I just don’t see Jesus volunteering to be our panacea or our get out of jail free card.  I do believe, however, that we can take him at his word.

He is making the invitation to discipleship.  But he is not making us his slaves. He is offering us an alternative way of life, a more peaceful way.  He is offering to teach us his understanding not only of scripture but of God and he has only one interpretive principle: Love.  Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

We can lay our burdens down at the feet of Jesus and rest.  We can shake off whatever yokes we’ve been laboring under and take up his gentler, easier, lighter yoke as an act of love.

We can lay aside the soul-killing burden of always trying to be worthy of love, of always trying to be good enough, because Jesus reminds us that we are loved and invites to live in the community of the beloved.  

We can put down the burden of striving for status because Jesus has told us that we are children of God, and there is no status in heaven or earth higher than that.  

We can stop striving to be visible, to be admired, because Jesus has told us that God sees us and knows us and has given us the kingdom.  

We can shake off the yoke of perpetual penance because in Christ we have endless grace so that we can go about the business of restoring relationships and building new ones.  

We can lay down our addiction to stress.  We can rest in Christ. We can take the yoke of Christ upon us and find rest for our souls.

In Jesus’ name.

Message Received

Matthew 10:40-42

I’ve been thinking a lot about Eric.  I remember how Eric was attracted by the crowd one Sunday evening when we were doing Stories, Songs, and Supper.  I was pretty sure when I first saw him that he was homeless although to be fair, his clothes were cleaner and neater than most in that condition.  

He stood at the church door and asked what was happening as he saw people gathering, greeting each other, laughing, and we told him, “It’s a thing we do called Stories, Songs, and Supper.  We share a meal then sing a bunch of old familiar songs, then someone tells a story, then we sing a little more.”  We invited him to come in and join us.  So he did.

While he was eating he told us a bit about himself—he had a gift of gab—then after supper he helped clear the tables.  He joined right in with the singing and he had a pretty decent voice.  Somewhere in the midst of all that let it be known in his own gregarious way that joining with us that evening was a particular treat for him because it happened to be his birthday.  So we all sang Happy Birthday to him.  At the end of the evening, as he was leaving, he asked if he could borrow a book from the book table in the fellowship hall.  He took a novel and promised to return it.

The next Sunday, Eric was there for Sunday morning worship.  Soon he was participating in Adult Education classes and Bible study.  He joined in with one of our small groups in the work they were doing with Lutheran Social Services.  In almost no time Eric had become an important member of our little family of faith. 

We welcomed Eric into our lives and Eric welcomed us into his.  And we were all richer for it.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” said Jesus in the tenth chapter of Matthew.  This is the same gospel in which Jesus later says, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Christ often comes to us in ways we’re not expecting.  When we welcome the unexpected stranger, or graciously accept a welcome when we are the unexpected stranger, we experience the presence and grace of God in new and enriching ways.

I remember one dreary afternoon when the sky was the color of lead and the rain was relentless.  The light coming in my office window had unconditionally surrendered to winter and my mood matched the weather.  Suddenly I heard this bright, jazzy music coming from downstairs.  I ran down the stairs and there in the Fellowship Hall was Eric, pounding out boogie-woogie on the old out-of-tune piano.  Who knew?  He had come in to the hall to get out of the rain and the mood had come on him to just sit down and play.  He apologized for disturbing me and I told him, “No apologies necessary!  You brought light into a gloomy day! Keep playing.”

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”

We learned a lot from Eric.  We learned a little about life on the streets.  We learned more than we wanted to know about our neighbors’ attitudes toward the homeless.  We learned how the police and the justice system in our city respond to those who are experiencing homelessness.  We learned about our own attitudes toward those living rough.  Most of all, though, we experienced an energy and vitality that’s been missing since he left us.  All this because we welcomed one gregarious man into our party on his birthday.

As I read the scriptures and the history of the Church, I see a story where the Holy Spirit is always trying to open the door of welcome wider.  Sadly, though, every time the Spirit pushes the door open wider, there are more than a few trying to close it.  

God made a covenant with Abraham and told him that his descendants would be a blessing to all nations, but then his descendants tried to make it a “descendants only” club. 

Jesus welcomed “tax collectors and sinners” to his fellowship table but the Pharisees were scandalized and critical.  How could he be from God if he associated with such people?  Then down through the years, even the followers of Christ, people calling themselves by his name, would make all kinds of gateway tests of belief and morality to decide who was worthy of coming to Christ’s table.

When the Church was barely up and running Peter, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, baptized Cornelius and his household, Roman gentiles.  In response, James and the other Apostles back at headquarters in Jerusalem had a tizzy fit and raised all kinds “who gave you permission” questions.  

St. Paul placed women in the pastorate and leadership ranks of the congregations he established (Junia, Julia, Prisca, Lydia, Euodia, Scyntyche), but before he was cold in his grave other patriarchal hands were editing his writing (1 Cor. 14:34-36) while still others borrowed his name to write  the women out of their jobs (1 Timothy 2).  

Not exactly welcoming.

This month in the ELCA we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a change in wording in the bylaws of the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church, two of the predecessor bodies of the ELCA.  Fifty years ago they voted to change the word “man” to the word “person” in their bylaws, thereby opening the door for the ordination of women. 

Fifty years later, women clergy often struggle with challenges that male clergy do not.  They deal with sexual harassment, disrespect, and often lower pay due to gender-based discrimination.  Some congregations still refuse to call a woman as pastor even when there are no other candidates.  The saddest part of that is that in doing so these congregations are depriving themselves of the gifts these talented women bring with them, gifts that could revitalize and renew them.  

When I think of the women pastors I know, I feel a tremendous hope and confidence for the future of the church.  If anyone can lead us to a brighter day, they can.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Eric taught us this lesson well: When we welcome the unexpected guest, we receive unexpected gifts. 

Fifty years ago the Spirit moved to open the door wider so that the church could receive the bountiful gifts that women bring through ordained service.  Eleven years ago the Spirit opened the door wider again when the ELCA voted to allow the ordination of LGTBQ persons.  And the church is richer for their ministry.

Today we stand at the edge of a tidal shift in our culture in regard to race, economic structures, and societal systems.  The Holy Spirit is pushing the door open yet again and maybe, maybe even pushing down the walls.  Church will be different.  There are new prophetic voices to hear.  New righteous persons to receive.  New gifts being given.  The only question is, will we welcome them?

In Jesus’ name.

 

Don’t Be Afraid

Matthew 10:24-39

[Jesus said,]   “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 

26  “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna) 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 

32  “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;  33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 

34   “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 

35       For I have come to set a man against his father,

         and a daughter against her mother

         and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 

36       and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;  38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Standing up for what you believe in, standing up for the right thing, can cost you. 

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they stood on the awards podium with their black-gloved fists raised in what the press called a Black Power salute to call attention to  the ongoing fight for civil rights in the United States.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos called it a Human Rights Salute.  Standing with them on the podium was the silver medalist, a white man, an Australian named Peter Norman.  Norman didn’t raise his fist but he did something else that brought down the whirlwind.   In solidarity with Smith and Carlos, he wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his uniform.  

After the race, Carlos and Smith had told Norman what they planned to do during the ceremony and Norman encouraged them.  They asked Norman if he believed in human rights.  He said he did.  Then Smith and Carlos asked Norman if he believed in God.  He said he believed strongly in God and that what they were about to do was more important than any athletic accomplishment.  And then he said, “I’ll stand with you.” On their way to the medals ceremony Norman saw the Human Rights badge being worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US rowing team and asked if he could borrow it for the ceremony.  He didn’t feel it was appropriate to raise his fist because that particular symbol belonged to the people whose civil rights were being denied.  But he could wear the patch.

That moment of solidarity was costly for Peter Norman.  He never returned to the Olympics.  Back in Australia he became a figure of controversy and got somewhat lost in his own life.  “If we were getting beat up,” said John Carlos years later, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” says Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  In other words, if they’re going to call Jesus himself the devil, don’t be surprised if they call you worse.  

This comes near the end of a long  section where Jesus is sending his disciples out on their first mission to proclaim the Good News—remember the good news?  the Reign of God is arriving?—but  now he’s telling them that this Good News, this news that people have waited for for eons is going to be disruptive, and some people aren’t going to like that.  

People are funny.  We can pray week after week, day after day, year after year “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  But when it gets down to actually working to make that happen, people get cranky because then we actually have to change things—our politics, our religious practices, our structures and systems…even ourselves.  “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” makes a lovely needlepoint but it can turn everything upside down when you actually put it in practice, especially the do  justice part.

Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. Do not be afraid of opposition.  You know it’s coming so just face it.  If you trust me, if you believe in what I’ve been teaching, then live by it.  Proclaim it.  Act on it.  Shout it from the rooftops. What’s the worst they can do to you?  Kill you?

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna)

Okay, two things here, and I’ll take the last one first.  Hell.  Hell isn’t hell. The actual word here is Gehenna which was a valley just outside Jerusalem where all the city trash was dumped and burned, including the carcasses of dead animals. It’s not the Hell of popular imagination.  Think city dump.  So, fear the One who can toss your whole self into the trash heap.

The second thing:  Soul.  The Greek word here is psyche.  Soul is one translation.  It can also mean life.  In this context, though, maybe think of it as your true self.  Jesus is saying don’t be afraid of those who can only kill your body.  Save your fear for God who can completely undo you.  Remember in Isaiah chapter 6 where Isaiah stands before the throne of God and says, “Woe is me for I am lost.”?  The Hebrew word there which we translate as lost is nidmeti.  It can mean lost or silenced.  It can also mean unmade. It’s the same idea here. 

Fear the One who can destroy both body and soul.  Fear the One who can destroy your true self.  God is one of only two entities in the universe who can unravel your true self.  And, spoiler, God won’t.  God will not.  God loves you with a passion.  God may work furiously to reshape you, to rid you of poisonous thoughts, ideas and attitudes, to smooth certain rough edges, but God will not destroy you.  

God may, however, let you destroy yourself.  God loves you enough to give you free will.  And you are the only other entity in the universe who can destroy your soul, you should be careful and thoughtful with that gift.  

One of the reasons, I think, that Christ gives us the high honor and calling of announcing and building the beloved community is to help steer us away from the numerous rabbit holes of self-destruction we could dive into, and also to give us trustworthy companions for the journey of life.  But, to take us back to where we started, Jesus knew that doing this, announcing that it’s time for a systemic do-over, would bring opposition and confrontation.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” 

There’s a similar passage in Luke 12 where Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.”  I don’t think that Jesus is saying in these passages that he is intent on creating conflict.  I think he is simply acknowledging that conflict is inevitable when we proclaim the kingdom and work for it because the whole and healthy society that God envisions, the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is very much at odds with business as usual in the earth of empires and economies.

There will be opposition.  There is opposition. And some of it is brutal.  That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Scholar and theologian John Howard Yoder points out that the cross was “the standard punishment for insurrection for the refusal to confess Caesar’s lordship.”  The phrase ‘take up your cross’ was commonly used by Zealots when they were recruiting.  It was a call to stand in defiance and opposition to Rome and the systems of empire that perpetuated oppression.  

But there was another dimension to it.  Roman citizens could not be crucified.  If a citizen was guilty of a capital offence, even insurrection, they would be beheaded.  Crucifixion was reserved for those of lesser stature, the invisible non-persons of the empire who opposed it.  “Take up your cross” was not just a call to stand in defiance of Rome, it was also a call to identify with the people on the margins.  It was a way of saying “Stand with the poor, the downtrodden, the nobodies.” 

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  And here we find the word psyche again in the Greek text, this time translated as life.  Life. Soul.  Self.  This is such a cryptic saying from Jesus.  Here’s how I understand it:  If you go looking for yourself, you’ll lose yourself, but if you lose yourself in the life of Christ, you’ll find yourself.  

I think maybe Jesus is saying stop worrying about the meaning of your life or what, exactly your soul is, or even who you are deep down in your soul.  Let go of all those esoteric questions and lose yourself in the business of the reign of God.  Work for equality and equity.  Feed the hungry.  House the homeless. Take care of the sick.  Bring hope to the hopeless.  Stand with those who need you to stand with them.  Act on your faith.  It may cost you.  There will be opposition.  Don’t be afraid.  The reign of God, the kingdom of heaven is in reach.  In Jesus’ name.

Harassed and Helpless

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.  36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;  38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” 

1  Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.  These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;  3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;  Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. 

5  These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,  but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

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When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

There’s more than a little irony in that statement.  In reality they had a lot of shepherds.  They had layers of government starting with the well-organized and highly structured hierarchy of Roman authoritiy enforced by a pervasively deployed military.  In addition to the Romans, there was the territorial tetrarch, Herod Antipas, who also had his own small army to ensure compliance with his whims.  Then, more or less voluntarily, the people were subject to the religious hierarchy with its class structure, requirements and factions. 

Oh, they had shepherds.  Too many shepherds.  But they were the kind of shepherds who were more interested in their fleece and mutton than in leading them to green pastures.  

They had shepherds.  But no one leading them with purpose.  No one showing them a vision of a better day.  No one giving them hope.

And then came Jesus, moving through the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, the basilea—the reign, the rule, the sovereignty of heaven.  Jesus stood up in their sacred places and announced that the reign of heaven was arriving, was at hand, was in reach, was happening.  

This euangelion – the word that is translated as good news, or gospel, the word that gives us our word evangelism—this good news that Jesus preached was a promise of hope to a hopeless people, a people harassed and helpless.  

This good news was also—make no mistake—political.  

Jesus stood up in the holy places of his people, in a territory under the iron-fisted dominion of the Roman Empire, in a region also under the capricious authority of an impulsive local king and declared publicly that the Reign of heaven was beginning.  The people listening to him understood that Jesus was talking not just about a new spiritual reality, but about a restructuring of all reality—a restructuring that would include politics, economics, and social structures.  They had heard the promise from Isaiah and the prophets.  They had seen the outline in the egalitarian laws of Torah with its profound concern for the stranger, the alien, and the poor.  They knew the promise of the kingdom.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed by the powers that were supposed to bring order and stability to their lives and helpless to do anything about it.  So he stood in their holy places and announced that the future that had been promised for so long, the hope they had waited for, was within reach.  They understood that he was saying that the revolution was beginning.  They just didn’t understand how he intended to conduct it, that it would not begin with fighting in the streets but with the transformation, the conversion if you will, of hearts and minds and lives.

It’s been two thousand years and we’re still misunderstanding Jesus even when we have his words and his methods right in front of us.

One of my colleagues shared with us in a meeting this week that she was frustrated and more than a little heartbroken because she got pushback from some members of her congregation for being too political in her last two sermons.  I know her well and I know she preached from the gospel text.  But here’s the thing—She’s black, a black woman pastor, preaching to a mostly white congregation.  With all the things happening in our country right now following the murder of George Floyd, with the demonstrations and riots, she had to say something.  After a lifetime of living in a culture where simply being black makes her and her children and her grandchildren “harassed and helpless” she had to say something.  The culture set the agenda and the gospel texts opened the door to speak.  She wasn’t political.  She was personal.  She described the experience she and her family and friends have had living with racism in this country.  She describe how racism is deeply rooted in so many of the systems in this country. She described how what they have experienced is contrary to the love and teaching of Jesus.

But there were people in her congregation who didn’t want to hear what she had to say even though it was rooted in the gospel.  It made them uncomfortable.  The words of Jesus, the Word of God spoken from the context of her life made them uncomfortable.  

The Word became flesh and stood among them.  But it wasn’t just spiritual or academic or religious.  It was real.  And it didn’t just speak words of comfort.  

So they pushed back.

Somewhere early on we, and by “we” I mean The Church universal, got lost in our religion. We forgot that the purpose of our religion is to help unite us for the practice of our faith.  And somewhere along the way as we wandered through the labyrinths of our theologies and liturgies and litanies even our vocabulary began to shift.

Take the word evangelism.  It means to share the gospel, the good news.  But somewhere along the way the content of the good news got swapped out.  Today for most people sharing the gospel means telling people that Jesus is our Savior or converting people to Christianity, however they might describe that.  But what was the good news, the gospel that Jesus told his disciples to announce?  Did he say, “Go out and tell everyone about me.  Tell them I’m the Son of God and that I’m here to save them and give them eternal life.” 

No, he did not.

He said, “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’

That’s part of his genius, by the way.  Go first to people who already know what you’re talking about.  You won’t have to spend a lot of time explaining what you mean by “the kingdom of Heaven.”  Start with an audience that knows how to hear you.  Start with a vision they’ve already heard about.

Why aren’t we saying that, or words to that effect to the people we know who are ready to hear it?  Maybe evangelism wouldn’t be so frightening if we started our conversations with something like, “You know, I think an egalitarian society, a culture of equality is a real possibility.  I think, with God’s help it can be done.”  Or maybe something even simpler.  “You know, I think we really can have liberty and justice for all.  A more perfect union.  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What’s stopping us?”

And look at how Jesus tells his disciples to demonstrate what the reign of Heaven looks like:  cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

We can do that.  Well some of it, anyway.  

There’s a story that St. Francis told his brothers one day that he was going to go to a nearby village to preach and asked a young novice to come with him.  On his way he passed an injured man and stopped to tend to his wounds and helped him back to his home.  A little farther down the road Francis and the novice came upon man who was homeless and hungry.  Francis shared some food with him and arranged for him to stay at a nearby house.  And so it went as they traveled down the road, they would encounter someone in need and Francis would care for them.  As the sun dropped lower in the sky, Francis told the novice that they should turn around and head back to the monastery for evening prayers.  “But,” said the novice, “you were going to the village to preach to the people!”  “My friend,” said Francis, “that’s what we’ve been doing all day.”

Proclaim the reign of Heaven.  Cure the sick.  Raise the dead.  Cleanse the lepers.  Cast out demons.  

Cure the sick.  We may not have the power that Jesus had in his hands to heal with a touch, a power he passed on to those first disciples, but we have other kinds of power.  We have the power to see to it that everyone gets proper medical care.  

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation 27.9 million people in this country still don’t have health insurance of any kind.  Last year 24% of Hispanics did not see a doctor because of cost concerns. The same statement applies to 21% of blacks, 19% of American-Indian Natives, 15% of Native Hawaiians and other pacific islanders, 14% for whites, and 11% for Asians.

Jesus tells us to cure the sick.  Why not start by helping the sick have the most basic tool they need to get to the people who are best equipped to cure them?  Why not start with universal health care?

Raise the dead.  We may not be able to revive dead persons like Jesus did, but we know we can revive dead hopes and dreams and opportunities.  We know we can help to open closed doors.  We know we can create a more level playing field.

Cleanse the lepers.  Who has been declared “unclean” in our culture?  Who has been cast out of the church or the society?  I think that in a figurative way, being Reconciling in Christ, opening the church to LGBTQ people has been and continues to meet this marching order from Christ.  The difference, of course, is that LGBTQ persons never were unclean.  It was the church’s position and opinion that needed to be cleansed and still does in some sectors.  We can do that.

Cast out demons.  This is our most immediate task, and easily the hardest.  The ingrained racism that’s rooted so deeply in our hearts and in our culture  is, plainly and simply, demonic.  It is clearly the mandate of Jesus to rid the world and our own hearts and minds of this demonic infection that threatens to destroy us.  But to do this means that each and every one of us will have to do some difficult ongoing work.  It means we have to educate ourselves.  It means we have to open our eyes to all the pernicious ways racism has wound its roots into our laws and lives.  It means that we need to be intentional about listening to our black friends and all our friends of color so we hear and understand more about their experience and see through their eyes.  It means that we learn how not to become defensive when we hear about white privilege, that, in fact, we learn to see it and understand how those of us who are white have lived by different rules.  It means that, in the name of Jesus, when we see injustice or unfairness, we name it and stand up to it, that we stand alongside our brothers and sisters of color who are standing up for their rights.  

These are the signs of the reign of heaven. Healing. Reviving. Restoring. Cleansing. Standing against evil.  These are the things we can do that preach the good news that Jesus proclaimed, even when we have no words.

As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  With liberty and justice for all.

When the Spirit Speaks

On the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks and one day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the day of Shavuot which the Hellenized Jews call Pentekosta, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with people from every tribe and nation, from the far reaches of the empire and beyond, some even from Cush, Iberia and Ethiopia, from Scythia and the Parthian empire.  Jews and proselytes, curious gentiles and ambitious traders had come from everywhere to be in the Holy City for the festival of the first fruits of spring and to remember the giving of Torah to Moses.  

The followers of Jesus were in the city, too, gathered all together in one place, in one room, waiting as Jesus had instructed, waiting for a signal, waiting for what was to come next.  Then suddenly the house where they were sitting was filled with a sound from heaven, a sound like a hurricane.  It filled the house and drove them to their feet while something that looked like tongues of fire danced between them until a flame seemed to alight on the head of each one of them.  They felt a presence swell up inside them and knew it was the Holy Spirit.  

The Spirit drove them out of the house and into the street where they began to speak to the crowd in languages they had never known as the Spirit spoke through them proclaiming the love and grace of God as it had been made known to them in Jesus the Christ.  They spoke of God’s works of power through Jesus, his feeding of multitudes, his healings, his teaching.  They spoke of how he welcomed strangers and touched lepers.  They spoke of how he challenged the self-righteous and embraced the neglected.

On the day of Shavuot, the Festival of Harvest which was also called Pentekosta, the day on which Moses had been give the Law, the Holy Spirit began to spread the good news of the Reign of God through Jesus, the Christ, across the empire of Caesar and beyond.

Now two millennia later, on the 31st day of May, on the day that Christians call Pentecost which is also called Whitsunday or Whitsun, we are not all together in one place.  We are not all together in one room, though we may be gathered in one ZOOM.  

This is a strange birthday for the Church as we begin to contemplate moving back into our facilities, our sanctuary, after months apart in our homes.  There are so many practical questions to consider.  Is it really safe yet?  Will our people be able to adapt to the new practices required for safe worship in this time of pandemic or will they revert to old, ways of doing things simply out of habit—ways which are now unsafe?  With all the restrictions and safeguards, is it even worth doing now?  Should we wait until there is a vaccine?   Those are all good questions.  Necessary questions.

But I have other questions.

What have we learned from this time of isolation?  How has the Holy Spirt spoken to us?  Was this, somehow, the work of the Holy Spirit—not the virus, to be clear—but the separation?  Was it the work of the Spirit to send us out of our sanctuary and into our homes for a time—a time of contemplation and reflection?  Have we used this time to reflect on what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ?  Have we used this time to listen to the Spirit, to discern what Christ is calling us to do and to become?  Are we listening now?

The Spirit has been speaking as always.  I’ve been hearing the Holy Spirt, not in the tongues of xenolalia or glossolalia, but in the everyday voices and silences of the congregation.  I’ve been hearing the Spirit and seeing the Spirit in phone calls, in prayer requests, in ZOOM meetings, in emails, in cards, letters and postcards, and on social media.  The Church is alive even if we are not all together in one place.  The church is open even if the building is closed.  The Spirit is still speaking.

On that first Pentecost the Spirit came upon them with the sound of a hurricane.  What kind of sound is the Spirit making now?

Sometimes, certainly, the Spirit speaks in silence.  The silence of our isolation.  The silence of our thoughts.  Sometimes in that silence the Spirit speaks to us with sighs too deep for words about our own lives and hearts and hopes and dreams.  As I listen to the Spirit in silence, I have been hearing the silence of a nation that has not yet grieved for 100,000 dead.

I believe, though, that there is also a sound that is carrying the presence of the Holy Spirit, a sound louder and deeper and broader than a hurricane and more turbulent than an earthquake, and yet often we seem deaf to it.  I wonder if we haven’t been sent out of our places of worship and into our homes so we could hear it better and learn to see the hand of God at work.  I wonder if our ears and minds and even our souls haven’t been so preoccupied with our hymns and liturgies and the pageantry of worship that we’ve been deaf and blind to the things the Spirit of God is engaged in, the things God is call us engage with.

At the beginning of creation the Spirit moved over the turbulent welter and waste of the waters to bring order out of chaos.  On this day of Pentecost is the sound of melting glaciers and rising seas the sound of the Spirit calling us to begin an era of re-creation, to take meaningful action in the battle against climate change?  Are we being called anew to fight pollution, to restore the earth, to cherish God’s creation?

In his day, the prophet Amos was filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to challenge the economic disparities of Israel and to predict catastrophe for the wealthy.  In a country where 10% of the households have 70% of the wealth, in a country where 40 million have filed for unemployment as businesses have closed due to the pandemic, where Wall Street seems disconnected from Main Street, is the Spirit calling us to reexamine our priorities and restructure our economic systems?

In an era when the people of Israel thought that all God cared about was religion done rightly and in the right place, the Holy Spirit spoke through Isaiah and later through Micah and said quite literally, “I do not want your bull.  Not while the poor are languishing.  Not while there is rampant injustice.  Take care of those in need.  Give justice where it has been subverted. Bring me a contrite spirit and a broken heart and then we’ll talk about worship.”  In a day when we get caught up in discussions about the propriety or impropriety of on-line communion, when we’re deep in discussions about when and how to open our sanctuaries, when the very issue of reopening our churches has become a political flash point and fodder for the political divide, is the Holy Spirit, maybe telling us to cool our jets, to make sure first that our ministries and priorities are in order, that our hearts are in the right place, and then we can talk about worship in our buildings?

On that first Pentecost the Holy Spirit used a sound like a hurricane and tongues of flame to move the followers of Jesus into the streets.  On this day of Pentecost there is another sound and another fire as the Spirit of God moves through our streets.  It is the sound of the grief, the anger, and frustration of those who have been unheard, a grief and anger long suppressed and now unleashed.  The flames are flames of rage that have long been suppressed in the hearts of our sisters and brothers of African descent.  It is the wail of mourning for George Floyd, for Ahmaud Aubrey, for Breonna Taylor, for Eric Garner, for Trevon Martin, for the 9 killed at Bible Study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, for Emmett Till, and for countless others.  The raging wind we hear is the sound of millions of voices sighing together the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, that they as a people and as individuals, are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  It is the Spirit, the Breath of God, squeezed from a people who are crying out “I can’t breathe.”

When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost I hear all of this.  A voice says, “Cry out!” and I say “What shall I cry out?”  And I hear the Spirit say, “Fix This!”  

When I listen to the Spirit I hear the words of Jesus reading from the scroll in the synagogue, words we drank in with our baptism when his mission became ours: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.  The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to open the eyes of those who have been blinded by ugly ways of thinking, to liberate those who have been oppressed by hideous words and evil ideas, and to set the captives free.  Fix This.”

When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost I hear the narrative voice of the Gospel of John, words about Jesus that also became words about us in our communion: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge or condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved, healed, made whole through him.  Fix This.”

When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost that’s what I hear.  I hear the brokenness.  I hear the lament and anger.  

But I also hear the promise and the call of God.  I hear the reminder that we have been anointed, empowered and called by the Spirit to be God’s tools of healing and restoration.  I hear the Spirit calling us to fulfill the promise.  

I hear the Spirit saying Fix This.  Fix it in your heart and in your mind.  Then help others fix it in theirs.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, calling us to transform the flames of anger and fear into flames of love.  May the winds of lament become the breath of grace and kindness and healing.  And with the power of the Spirit, immersed in the love of Christ, we will fix this.

That’s what I hear.  

What do you hear?